January 31st, 2012 | Published in Interviews
A Vivoscene Feature Interview by Marin Nelson
Relentless in its joyful intensity, Dog Year, the debut album by the indie group Miracles of Modern Science, provides a welcome respite from the all-too-dominant pessimism and solipsistic self-absorption that pervades the music scene. Yes. they’re string-based rather than founded on guitar or synth, and it’s not a combination that’s found much success over the years, but hot damn it works in this case: double-bass, mandolin, cello and violin never sounded as tasty or as replete with brainiacal emotion. We recently connected with co-founder Evan Younger to find out more about this intriguing band.
You can catch our full album review here. It’s one of our Must Have Recordings of 2012!
How did Miracles of Modern Science form?
Josh Hirshfeld (mandolin) and I lived down the hall from each other our freshman year at Princeton, and we found we shared musical taste and an oddball sense of humor. We started playing together as an acoustic duo, which expanded when we met Kieran Ledwidge (violin), Geoff McDonald (cello), and Tyler Pines (drums).
It’s customary for us to ask who your artistic and musical influences are, but we’re particularly intrigued to hear yours. Lay it on us.
This is always a tough one for us since we’re such musical omnivores. Geoff and Kieran are orchestral musicians by day, so they’re continually bringing in concert music influences from all time periods. Josh is a reformed guitar player with a finger on the pulse of the indie rock scene, so he’s always introducing us to newest hippest bands a year before anyone’s heard of them. Tyler (Pines, drums) has a jazz and fusion background in addition to some out-there rock taste. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve been obsessed with choral music, or classic rock, or jazz, or old country, or 80s pop. It all gets thrown in the blender and it’s hard to tell where any one song or idea comes from.
Tell us how your sound evolved into the classical-but-discordant indie rock we hear on Dog Year.
From the begining, Josh and I knew we wanted to start a rock band. So when we finally found a drummer, we tried to refashion our ragtag string band into a “real” rock band. We tried to get Geoff to play guitar at our first practice, even though he’d never played before! But when we gave that up and went back to the instruments we were comfortable with, it clicked. We haven’t varied our instrumentation since.
What can your combination of string instruments (double bass, mandolin, violin, cello) and drums offer a song that a more orthodox musical ensemble (lead guitar, bass guitar, drums etc.) can’t?
The bow lets you do more with a single note – you can sustain it indefinitely, and you can grow in volume after the attack. Voices can do those things, but guitars and pianos can’t. It opens up a nice range of timbral and compositional possibilities.
Guitars are better at filling out harmonies by strumming chords, but not having that option has been a blessing for us – it makes us think harder about how the instrumental parts interact.
Many would argue that you can’t have a rock group without a guitar. What’s your response to that?
I think that’s a silly thing to say! But it’s equally silly to argue with it. I think our music has more to do with rock than any other genre, but there will always be people who define rock differently.
Building tension seems to be a MOMS specialty. Where does your dramatic flair come from?
I’m not sure! We’re all a bunch of hams, I guess.
Your sound is surprisingly adaptable to more commercial music, like your cover of “Pumped Up Kicks”.
Thanks! I think we’ve got a good 3 minute pop song or two in us – we just need to let it out.
Would you say that you strive to taper concert music into identifiable genres, or are you just concerned with making some damn good music, without consideration of where the genres bend?
The latter. We’re deeply involved with and influenced by concert music, but we don’t have any sort of agenda.
Your songs are so textured and cerebral – are they disassembled and written, or more of a result of a jam sesh? What’s your experience with recreating your recorded songs live?
It’s not really a matter of recreating our recorded songs live – this album was about recreating our live songs on record. We spent hours and hours honing our songs and testing them at shows before we went in the studio. And our arrangements are so densely structured that there wasn’t much room for overdubs.
In the earlier days, Josh and I would collaborate one-one-one and bring songs to the band nearly fully formed. It’s become much more of a full band process over the years, and our arrangements have gotten a lot more complex with everyone contributing. “Eating Me Alive”, the first song we wrote together, is pretty straightforward, whereas “Space Chopper,” the last one we finished before recording Dog Year, is a total clusterfuck. (But the good kind of clusterfuck.)
Your melodies plummet and plunge like a fucked up Richter scale, but it never seems jarring. How you do maintain your pacing?
We always give a ton of attention to how we structure a song. When we’re writing, we’ll play around with a song idea until we have 15 or 20 different variations on it – slow, fast, loud, quiet, instruments swapping parts, alternate chord progressions… – then we gradually stitch them together, trying to make a satisfying arc. We’ll often spend more time tweaking transitions between sections than writing main hooks, melodies, lyrics.
Okay, you’re Princeton grads and a string quintet. But are you guys really that nerdy?
You guys wail live – how many strings do you break on average?
Our record is three strings in one show – 2 cello and 1 mandolin. Also my bass’s bridge collapsed once mid-song, and we had to play the rest of the show bassless. And at another show the soundboard caught fire. We’re rough on our gear.
Dog Year is getting really favourable reviews from big names like NPR, SPIN and Paste. What’s it like seeing your older material come together with your recent tunes and hit it big?
It’s been great!
Okay, could you let us in on deliciously absurd “Secret Track”? What’s the story (or drug) there?
Believe it or not, that song started out completely serious. I wrote the somber instrumental parts first. Josh and I were struggling to come up with a vocal melody that fit, when out of nowhere the phrase “WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO AMPUTATE!” popped in my head. It worked as a weird shouted hook. The rest just flowed from there.
What’s next for MOMS?
We’ve been invited to SXSW this March, and we’re trying to put together a “living room tour” to play for our biggest fans along the way – anyone who wants to host a show can hit us up at email@example.com !